Are superhero movies a form of idol worship?

Josh Larsen

Watchmen makes you wonder if no superhero movie is fit for Christian consumption.

It’s not because the movie itself is hopelessly immoral (though it does have its fair share of graphic violence and sexuality). Rather, Watchmen exposes the idolatry that one could argue is inherent in most superhero myths. These are movies, after all, in which god-like men and women save us from evil. If we have Batman, Superman and Spider-Man, doesn’t it follow that we don’t need God?

Watchmen brought this to mind, paradoxically, because its superheroes are anything but saviors. The movie is adapted from the 1986 graphic novel by Alan Moore, which envisioned superheroes as little more than egotists, sociopaths and masochists who use their crime-fighting status to indulge in wanton violence.

The novel was a shot in the arm to the comic-book industry, paving the way for the brooding, obsessed heroes that would follow. The Watchmen movie similarly changes the game for superhero pictures. It makes The Dark Knight look bright.

I should note that Watchmen does feature one god-like figure. Dr. Manhattan, a research scientist who was the victim of the proverbial experiment gone wrong, can now see the past and future simultaneously; multiply himself; and teleport people and objects across the galaxy. Yet even he is ultimately rendered impotent by what humanity he has left. When he is led to believe that his presence causes the people he loves to contract cancer, he is nearly crushed by guilt and banishes himself to Mars.

If we have Batman, Superman and Spider-Man, doesn’t it follow that we don’t need God?

With World War III fast approaching – like the novel, the movie takes place in the 1980s – Dr. Manhattan’s vacancy leaves the fate of humanity in the questionable hands of such figures as Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), a vigilante who routinely favors murder over arrest. When a fellow “masked avenger” is murdered shortly before Dr. Manhattan’s disappearance, Rorschach suspects a conspiracy and tries to round up a handful of other crime-fighters to investigate.

Watchmen is a rough ride, and not only thematically speaking. Plot points hinge on murder, rape and worse, and the violence is given the same fetishistic sheen that director Zack Snyder slathered on his vile 300.

Yet in its deconstruction of the superhero legend – in its stripping from these figures both their super and heroic qualities – the movie is, ironically, more closely aligned to a Christian view of the world than earlier, gentler comic-book extravaganzas. It’s an extension of the Icarus myth, really, in which man flies too high, trying to become a god.

What happens when we don masks and attempt to save ourselves, the movie asks? Cruelty, chaos – the usual sin, only dressed up in masks, capes and tights. Superman, Spider-Man - even The Dark Knight, to a degree - offer human saviors who redeem us from our worldly ways. Watchmen is hardly religious, but it at least recognizes that no human being can offer that sort of redemption.

Topics: Movies, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure